In recent years, North Korea has continued to make significant progress in its development of increasingly capable ballistic missile systems. The DPRK is now in possession of an estimated eight intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of striking the continental United States as well as an array of advanced short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that may be capable of challenging ballistic missile defense systems deployed in South Korea.
How North Korea’s Missiles Went Mobile
Coinciding with North Korea’s development of ballistic missile systems has been its continued efforts to field mobile launchers with which it can more effectively operate its ballistic missile weaponry. North Korea has for many decades engaged in extensive modification of heavy-duty vehicles in order to convert them for use as mobile ballistic missile launchers. More recently, these efforts have expanded to include conversion of larger vehicles suitable for use with North Korea’s larger, longer-ranged ballistic missile systems such as its ICBMs.
When operated in a mobile manner – as opposed to from more fixed positions such as silos – ballistic missile systems make use of mobile launch vehicles in the form of either Transporter-Erector Launchers (TELs) or Mobile Erector Launchers (MELs). Of the two, TELs are the more commonly used type of mobile ballistic missile launch vehicles, and are self-contained platforms capable – as their name implies – of transporting, erecting, and launching ballistic missiles. MELs, meanwhile, have a somewhat less well-defined definition, and the term MEL is increasingly being used to describe systems that could also be described as TELs. Historically however, MELs have been defined as platforms capable of erecting and launching ballistic missiles in a manner similar to TELs, but which cannot themselves transport the missiles and require towing by other vehicles.
Mobile ballistic missiles systems making use of either TELs or MELs, when compared to more static ballistic missiles systems such as silo-based missiles, can be seen as more survivable in so far as they can be dispersed and hidden from a potential adversary. This makes them significantly more difficult to track, detect, and destroy than missiles fired from fixed positions, which are likely to be known to an enemy and can be more easily targeted. Mobile missiles, particularly with regards to ICBMs, are likely preferable to countries whose arsenals are not large enough to effectively weather an enemy first strike, and who instead rely on maintaining all or most of their arsenal in order to be effective. The act of dispersing road-mobile missiles, moreover, can also be used as a method to signal resolve.
North Korea has for many decades been in the business of producing TELs and MELs as part of its ballistic missile program. Much of this work has involved conversions made to vehicles – whether they be civilian vehicles converted into launchers or modifications made to TELs acquired from foreign partners – with a significant amount of these efforts likely taking place within North Korea’s No. 65 Factory. This facility has likely served as a main focal point for North Korean TEL and MEL production since at least the 1980s, when the DPRK began the conversion of heavy-duty logging trucks imported from Japan into MELs for use with its SCUD missiles, and where the country likely engaged in refurbishment of a number of MAZ-543 TELs also for use with SCUD missiles.
Conversion and modification of other imported heavy-duty vehicles into MELs and TELs has continued in the decades since, and in the 2010s North Korea took a significant step forward with regards to its TEL capacity that had important ramifications for its ability to develop ICBM capabilities.
In 2011, it was reported that North Korea had imported as many as six heavy-duty vehicle chassis from China. China reported that North Korea had supplied it with falsified information regarding their planned use as logging vehicles by the Ministry of Forestry. How much of this is true remains unclear, but these vehicles would appear during a 2012 military parade as TELs carrying the KN-08 ICBM. They would appear once again as TELs during the successful tests of both the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 ICBMs in 2017. The TEL used by the Hwasong-15 during its flight test featured an additional ninth axel and a different arm configuration, demonstrating North Korea’s ability to modify these vehicles.
North Korea has continued to demonstrate new developments regarding its TEL capacity. During its October 2020 military parade, North Korea unveiled its largest ICBM model so far in the form of the Hwasong-16. The 11 axel TELs used to transport the new missile were larger than the previous eight and nine axel TELs, and this parade represented the first time that North Korea had displayed more than six TELs. That North Korea was able to field more and larger TELs suggests that the DPRK has either received additional heavy-duty vehicles that it has since modified or that it has successfully smuggled in TEL parts and components despite the presence of international sanctions. More worryingly, this could also suggest that North Korea has now become capable of indigenous TEL production, which would remove a substantial barrier to its fielding a much larger strategic nuclear weapons arsenal.